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Andy Griffith's two faces, both of them America's

July 05, 2012|By Patt Morrison
  • Andy Griffith's first film role as "Lonesome" Rhodes in ''A Face in the Crowd'' was 180 degrees from the affable figure he would later come to play.
Andy Griffith's first film role as "Lonesome" Rhodes… (UCLA Film and Television…)

The Mayberry version of America was already beginning to fade into history when Andy Griffith, who diedthis week, began starring in "The Andy Griffith Show," as a small-town sheriff like no other.

The show began a month before the election of John F. Kennedy ended the warm-fuzzies of the Eisenhower era, and it went off the air three days before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. In those eight years, the country shook like Deputy Barney Fife’s gun hand.

The show used a man with a badge to tell its real stories, about being a good father and a good neighbor and a good citizen, in much the way that "The Twilight Zone" employed fantasy to serve up verities about the human conscience and human spirit.

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When it came to the actual details of sheriffing on the show, you had to watch with salt shaker in hand, as you do with any TV show or movie that purports to portray someone’s line of work. Whether it’s doctoring or lawyering or sheriffing or newspapering, the drama has to trump the reality, or there’s no TV show or movie that’s watchable. Just about any journalism movie or TV show, excepting "All the President’s Men," has to overcome the essential drama- and conflict-free life of a real reporter, and put characters in ridiculous situations that require them to commit outlandish, fireable or even indictable offenses all the time.

Likewise, Andy Griffith’s easygoing lawman had to concoct conflicts and take liberties doing things not at all by the book, like driving his family around in the sheriff’s official car, which somehow irked me more than any of Don Knotts’ deputy’s goof-ups. (I try not to look for these implausibilities, I really do. But sometimes I just can’t help it. "12 Angry Men’" is a brilliant 1957 study in human character and justice and class, but at that dramatic moment when juror Henry Fonda pulls from his pocket a knife he’d gone out and bought in a shop — a knife identical to the reputedly "unique" murder weapon — my first thought wasn’t what the filmmaker wanted us to think, that the case against the young defendant was BS. No, the first thing I thought of — mistrial! Jurors are told not to consider or seek out any evidence not presented in court, and here Henry Fonda had gone out and found a knife like the murder weapon.  I wish my mind didn’t work that way, but there it is._

This is a long way of getting around to another movie made in 1957. Its star was Andy Griffith, not the genial Mayberry Andy Griffith, but a grinning incarnation of evil and ego. He was simply, harrowingly brilliant.

Griffith once told TV Guide that "any time I try to play anything that doesn’t come natural, I’m just plain bad."

This one time, at least, he was wrong. "A Face in the Crowd" is screenwriter Budd Schulberg’s extraordinary film about "Lonesome" Rhodes, an overnight-successful radio and TV buffoon, a sinister and narcissistic megalomaniac behind his hayseed grin, a type that owes something to the tyrannical Father Coughlin, the fascistic radio priest of the 1930s. It’s also a type that presaged (and here comes a mock-fancy Americanism that Abraham Lincoln heard uttered onstage just seconds before he was shot) the "sockdologizing" talk-show gasbags of today, of the sort Stephen Colbert sends up so well.

"I’m not just an entertainer," Griffith’s character rants. "I’m an influence … a wielder of opinion ... a force – a FORCE!" In another scene, he rhapsodizes about his slavishly worshipful millions of fans: "They’re mine. I own 'em. They think like I do. But they’re even more stupid than I am. So I gotta think for 'em!" And, he threatened, "if the president tries to stop me, I’ll flood the White House with millions of telegrams!"

"Lonesome" Rhodes makes Elmer Gantry look like Mr. Rogers.

So much of the news coverage of Griffith’s death has been as sentimental as a Hallmark card and as sweet as a Whitman’s Sampler. This one searing performance, for my money, puts all the rest in the shade.

Why Griffith wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar for this role, I do not know. Even in the year when Alec Guinness won for ''The Bridge on the River Kwai,'' Griffith was a standout, working overtime against who he really was to create a fiend in hick’s clothing.

At last, four years ago, the film was acknowledged by the Library of Congress to be "culturally, historically or esthetically significant." Ya think?

Between this film and his Sheriff Taylor, Griffith showed the nation two of its most characteristic faces: the genial, sensible, amiable, plain-spoken figure whose forthright, small-town ways make the city slickers look foolish and cynical … and the obverse, the populist fraud who manipulates his true believers using their own gullibility to exploit them and exalt himself.

When we praise Griffith for living — and showing us — the first face, we should also remember how perfectly, just that once, he held up a mirror to us to illustrate the latter.


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